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Life in a reactor’s shadow

All roads in Buchanan, N.Y., lead to the Indian Point nuclear power plant. As Congress ponders a proposal to make Nevada a national repository for nuclear waste, residents debate the safety of the plant itself and shipping its waste across the country.
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All roads in this tiny village in Westchester County lead to one place, the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Just 1 1/2 square miles in area and with a population of around 2,000, Buchanan has in its backyard one of the most controversial of the 104 nuclear power plants in the United States. As Congress ponders a proposal to make Yucca Mountain in Nevada a national repository for nuclear waste, residents here and in other New York suburbs debate the safety of the plant itself and shipping its waste across the country.

After decades of living next to one of the oldest operating reactors in the country, Buchanan’s residents dismiss claims that it’s a potential disaster area.

But the specter of American Airlines Flight 11 soaring over Indian Point en route to its deadly destiny at the World Trade Center — and the subsequent discovery of American nuclear plant blueprints in al-Qaida hideouts in Afghanistan — has led to calls from some Westchester County residents to shut the plant down.

Still, the people of Buchanan remain loyal supporters of Indian Point, where workers recently held a demonstration to drive home the importance of plant jobs in the blue-collar town.

The plant accounts for about 95 percent of the village’s tax revenues, as well as half of the local school district’s taxes. The company that owns Indian Point, Entergy Corp., which is based in New Orleans, financed the construction of a recreation center in Buchanan last year.

“The people who are afraid are from the city or from Garrison,” a nearby wealthy community, says Frank Apollonio, the owner of the Benvenuti Italian Deli, located on Bleakley Avenue, which leads straight to the gates of Indian Point.

“We’re so used to it being here,” says Frances Stellato, a Bleakley Avenue resident. “The walls are pretty thick, and the people in charge are always checking things over,” she says.

New York suburbs
Around 20 million people live within 50 miles of Indian Point, making the area the most densely populated region surrounding a nuclear plant in the United States.

Opponents of the plant, many of whom would like to see it shut down and its radioactive waste buried at the proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, cite studies that estimate that a radioactive plume resulting from an attack would kill up to 300,000 people in Westchester County.

Entergy Corp. acquired Indian Point on Sept. 5, six days before the terrorist attacks. Since then, the company says, it has invested $3 million in safety measures at the plant, the only one in the nation that has received a “red finding” on the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s safety scale. The NRC conducts ongoing inspections and issues findings using the colors green, white, yellow and red, with green being the safest and red the most dangerous.

Indian Point recently announced a plan to change the way it stores the nuclear waste the plant has produced over the years. The waste is now stored under water in pools that are 40 feet deep. But the plant’s operators decided — in part to prepare for the day when casks of waste may be shipped to Yucca Mountain — to move the waste into dry casks.

In Westchester County, that plan hasn’t stirred much controversy, mainly because many residents want Indian Point’s 30-plus years of nuclear waste removed from their midst.

“If those spent fuel rods are to be transported through the village, I have faith that it will be done in a safe manner,” said Daniel O’Neill, the recently elected mayor of Buchanan.

“I do think the casks are more secure,” state Assemblywoman Sandra R. Galef told The New York Times in April. “And it gets the spent fuel ready to move.”

The anti-nuke movement
But the issue of moving the radioactive waste has its detractors.

Riverkeeper, an environmental group that is one of Indian Point’s harshest critics, would rather see the waste stay where it is for now. The group reacted with alarm at the prospect of moving the waste through Westchester’s towns and villages.

“Moving 77,000 tons of waste is giving terrorists a moving target,” says Alex Matthiessen, executive director of Riverkeeper.

He said that shipping the waste to Nevada would merely give “the public the impression that something is being done, when it’s a false solution.”

Many residents in the shadow of the plant appear content to let the government decide the best course of action.

“I am one hundred percent behind the plant. There are intelligent people watching over this town and the State of New York,” said Bob Millen, a Buchanan resident. “Those plans to move the waste don’t worry me.”

Tarannum Kamlani, a recent graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism, worked this spring as an news intern.